Your Data

Laptops are complicated wee beasties!

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Last night when I went to bed my new (to me anyway) Powerbook G4 was working fine. This morning when I got up it was severely misbehaving - there was 9.5gb of RAM in use and nothing was responding. I started shutting everything down and at one point tried to turn off the local ColdFusion 8 server using sudo, only to have an error that my account wasn't in the sudoers list; given that my account was an administrator, this was not good. I left it to continue rebooting but when I got back, a half hour later, it had pretty much frozen up trying to load a few starter apps. This, along with the noise coming from the drive, told me what I already knew - the drive was dead.

Given that I bought the laptop off a guy on ebay two weeks previously, and that there was no extended warranty on it, I was up the proverbial creek. Given that I had to go meet someone anyway, I jumped in the car and picked up a new drive, along with an external USB chassis for the off-chance I'd be able to access the data one last time.

Well, that was the easy part. The tricky part was opening up the blasted laptop. There is a covered panel on the bottom of the 12" Powerbook G4 (1.33ghz model) that for some reason in my anxiety I mistook to be where the drive went, despite the obvious fact it was too small, and the fact that the nice KLACK!! noise came from elsewhere. The first problem of the repair - I didn't have a screwdriver the correct size. So off I go looking for a repair kit that would have a full set of screwdrivers and other tools; the first store I checked stopped carrying tools because they wanted to sell their services (or simply a new computer), and finally I got the last set of six "precision" screwdrivers at Wallyworld. After opening up said panel I felt like slapping myself as I was presented with: the memory upgrade slot. Yay.

At this point google was my friend and I found a full manual that detailed exactly how to disassemble our Powerbook. Let me tell you, this was a complicated wee beasty - tonnes of screws all over the place, some hidden behind keys on the keyboard. In addition there were two "allen"-type screws that I didn't have a correctly sized key for, so off I go to Lowes. Some of the screws were also very tightly in place, and there were several times I had to awkwardly put pressure on this tiny little screwdriver so that it would break the seal, but not so much pressure that it broke anything else; and did I mention the screwdriver was tiny so it was difficult to twist?

After much frustration I finally got all the way down to the very last screw holding in the dead drive only to realize that a) the screw was really tight, the screwdriver was wearing away and would probably rip the threads off the screw, which would have been bad. So off I go to Lowes again to get another set of screwdrivers, and this time I struck gold - a larger screwdriver with interchangeable tips, which worked wonderfully well, and I wish I'd had it earlier.

So finally I get the new drive installed, close it all back up, boot and... it works! After last week's data loss I'd made a full backup of the now dead HD to an external drive so was able to do a restore off it. Eight hours after discovering that the drive was dead I was finally able to work again. ARGH!!! <sigh>.

On the other hand, I'm looking forward to OSX Leopard's new Time Machine backup system. Since I'd ran the backup I'd copied about 100 pictures off a camera memory card and saved some timesheets - the pictures I'll probably be able to recover off the card, but I'm going to have to retrace my time for the timesheets, and hope I get it right.

Oh, and annoyingly, with the price of the replacement drive and all the hours of work I've lost for the day, I could have bought a refurbished MacBook that had an actual warranty. Argh.

So, did I mention that you should backup often?

Backup your data *now*, damnit!

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Nothing scares you into realizing how fragile our data is until you accidentally delete something important.

In my case it was trying to get some pictures off my phone; the bluetooth connection was misbehaving so I figured I'd just pop out the memory card, only it wasn't working in the card reader, so I put it back in the camera to try the bluetooth again when sccccrrrraaaaapppe! it scratches against the slot and gets jammed. I had to pry the card out and when it did it had two small but visible scratches across it, and for a teeny-tiny MicroSD card even small scratches appear to make a difference. I plugged the card back in, carefully this time, but it wouldn't work. I rebooted the phone in case that might wake it up - nothing! I'd just lost about 30 pictures of the family and half a dozen movie clips including some utterly adorable ones.

So let this be a lesson to all of you - back up your data, and don't fool around with important files if you a) don't have backups and b) aren't paying attention to what you're doing.

Free backup app - Genie Games Backup

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Despite its name, Genie Games Backup is a general purpose backup utility for Windows that lets you make backups of any files you want, and run the backup either manually or on an automatic schedule. While their fully-fledged commercial products work wonders, I'm personally amazed they're giving away something so fully fledged for free. Well worth trying out if you don't already have a backup utility.

iTunes TV shows - worth trying out

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(Originally started in December 2006)

My wife and I don't watch much TV, primarily because we cancelled our TV cable subscription several years ago. While we are both fans of science fiction shows there simple was too much junk on aside from two or three shows to spend upwards of $60 each month, and we also wanted to move towards more constructive ways of spending our time. However, there are still those one or two shows we really enjoy and wish to keep up with, without having to wait a year or more for the episodes to be released on DVD. Enter what is currently IMHO the best alternative solution to our predicament - iTunes!

Although originally released as a music-only platform, iTunes has expanded to cover an array of additional media, starting with podcasts and audio books, and more recently to music videos, TV shows and full movies. When the TV show and music video support was originally launched in late 2005 I was not overly keen, primarily because the size of the video was a pokey-small 320x240. This screen size is less than quarter of DVDs, so a video playing in full-screen looked pretty bad, at times worse than an old VHS tape, which wasn't worth it to me.

It took almost a year, but the day finally arrived that I was eagerly awaiting - Apple announced that from September 12th, 2006, all video downloads would be at the much improved 640x480 size, equivalent to the venerable VGA computer monitor resolution of yore and just a smidgin under full DVD size. In addition, over the summer several new TV shows were added to their lineup, including two of the main shows we were interested in obtaining - the SciFi channel's Stargate SG1 and Battlestar Galactica (yes, we're geeks). As a gift to my wife we splurged on a season pass to SG1 for $38 while I'll be picking up BSG weekly for $2, which works out to be less than $8 per month for TV shows ($38 + 20x$2 = $88 / 12 = $7.50) versus the almost $60 for the comparable cable service, so its worth it for us.

After watching several episodes in this new format I have to say that on the whole it is a great way to obtain media you can't otherwise. One thing I can see lots of people using it for is if they are following a show on TV but miss an episode, $2 gives them a chance to catch it later, regardless of any rerun schedule. It is also a great way to try out new shows - for less than the price of a decent coffee you can view an episode of any show available to see if you might like it. Lastly, the obvious market is for people, like my wife and I, who don't pay for a cable or satellite TV service but still wish to follow shows as they happen rather than a year down the road.

Along with the chance to buy TV shows, there are a few other tidbits worth mentioning to pique your interest. Firstly, every week Apple gives away some content via the iTunes Store - a few songs and a few TV episodes. What I've enjoyed seeing is the pilot episodes of some shows getting posted for free, giving you a chance to see what a brand new TV show is like while it is fresh on the market.

The second item worth considering is that Apple also makes full movies available through their service. For a price between $10 and $15 you can download a full length movie to view any time on your computer - no discs required. This may not seem like a great deal when you compare the price against buying a discounted movie via Amazon or a brick-n-mortar discount store, but it could be useful to e.g. build up a library of kid/family-friendly entertainment that you can allow your children to watch whenever they like; couple that with the "allowance" system that the iTunes store has, and parent controls on access to content based on the standard movie ratings, this could be useful for many parents.

Lastly, it does have to be mentioned that you can view the content at any time you like. You are no longer at the mercy of when the TV stations decide that your favorite show should be aired, and you also no longer have to deal with the flaws associated with digital video records (DVRs), which have a tendency to be occasionally hit-or-miss with start/stop times. So, if you like you can queue up five hours of new Battlestar Gallactica episodes some night your newborn is having difficulty sleeping, or organize to have some friends over for a Supernatural party, or you could be really boring and watch that Disparate Housewives show.., that's your choice :-P

There are a few limitations which are a little frustrating. Firstly, there is no way to download a file multiple times without paying for it again. With technology the way it is, it is quite likely that you may some day need to re-download your files again, but Apple would prefer you not. Instead Apple recommends that you back up your downloaded files rather than relying upon them, which I can't really fault too much.

Secondly, TV shows and movies can't be burned to DVD to play in your living room or your portable players, you need either a video iPod to play portable or hook to your TV, or a laptop, and neither solution is particularly enticing. An obvious problem with playback on either laptops or on a desktop computer is the size of screen - most people have much smaller monitors than they do TV screens so the picture won't look as enticing. As for video iPods, those are stick stuck with tiny three inch screens and cost at least $250, which is pretty poor in comparison to the $80 portable DVD players on the market.

Thankfully Apple are well aware of these problems and so have released a set-top box, called the AppleTV, to connect to your TV to play any iTunes content directly from your computer through either a wired or wireless connection; though priced a little high at $300, it will give people an easier solution in their desire to view their paid-for content in their more comfortable living room setting. On the portable front I'm still holding out for an iPod with a larger screen, probably something with a six or seven inch screen, basically something that can be more easily placed on a shelf near the viewer (think: prop it in a cupboard while doing dishes) or propped up while lying in bed, without having to squint quite as much.

One final concern is the video size itself. The decision to go with 640x480 versus the only slightly higher 720x480 DVD resolution is curious. Almost all video content is sold on DVD at some point so the content providers (TV stations, movie companies) have to re-save a new version of their content, which may or may not be possible; it has been mentioned online that some content has been the older 320x240 sized up, which defeats the purpose entirely. Also, with the announcement that the set top box has HDMI connectors for connecting to HDTVs, the realization hits that none of the iTunes content will be available at a native HD resolution as the smallest HD size is 720x480 (same as DVD); this means that all iTunes content played through the set top box will be sized up, reducing the overall quality and, therefore, the value of buying content through this alternative means. My only guess as to why this happened is that the movie & TV studios were unwilling to allow Apple to encroach directly on "their" territories so denied them the right to use standard DVD or HD sizes. Here's hoping that Apple manages to push the movie & TV industry into doing the full resolution as it really makes no sense.

So, these issues aside, I personally think that, unless you happen to watch a great deal of TV and thus can warrant the expense of cable vs picking a few shows ad-hoc, iTunes is a great way to keep up with your favorite TV shows, and the new AppleTV will just make it even better.

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